Decisions, decisions...

Charlotte Stephenson considers how the EPQ can reduce the risk of subject choice

Choosing a directionHave you ever had a bag of Revels? Each pack of sweets contains an assortment of flavours, which are mischievously disguised by the same chocolate coating. Choosing your sweet is a risky game. We all have our favourites (orange, in my case) while there are others we’d rather avoid (coffee)!

Educational qualifications also come in different ‘flavours’. We have qualifications that are vocational, academic, professional, and so on. There’s something for everyone. However, there is risk involved in choosing your path through education. You could have a favourite subject, but employers and universities may not share that preference. I loved singing at school, but a performing arts certificate wouldn’t have helped me get onto the psychology degree I had my eye on – the university preferred the academic to the artistic – so I took English instead.

Choice in education can be beneficial. Freeing learners to decide how and what they learn can give them the motivation they need to excel – it makes sense that students are more likely to succeed in subjects they enjoy. It might even be the difference between staying in education and dropping out.

But choice also introduces the risk that students will pick subjects that won’t help them achieve their long-term goals. Some qualifications are more likely to aid access to employment and further study than others: academic qualifications are often prized more highly than vocational ones, for example. When not all options are equal, increasing choice can actually limit learners’ chances.

This becomes a social justice issue when the less valued subjects are disproportionately chosen by students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

One solution to this risk/choice trade-off is to encourage all students to take the more highly valued subjects – as was the intention of the EBacc. Another approach would be to reduce the risk associated with subject choice by ensuring that different disciplines are equally valued. The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) may do just that.

The EPQ is equivalent to half an A-level, and requires students to work independently on a topic of their choice. They keep a reflective log throughout the learning process and present the finished project at school. Students can complete an EPQ on just about anything that interests them. Real-life examples include building a guitar, investigating the regeneration of organs from embryonic stem cells, and creating a make-up tutorial video.

As a skills-based qualification, the process is more important than the finished product, which means that vocational, practical, artistic, academic and physical projects have equal access to top marks. All students who take the EPQ come away with the same certificate, whatever the content of the project. Importantly, the qualification is valued by universities for the skills that learners develop. There’s even some evidence to suggest that students who take the EPQ perform better in other subjects.

The qualification is also valued by schools. As part of my research, I’ve been speaking to some students and teachers about their experiences of the EPQ. They appreciate the opportunity to pursue independent study, and feel that the qualification boosts learning by filling gaps in the curriculum. With such a range of stakeholders seemingly in favour, perhaps the EPQ can satisfy our need for choice without the element of risk.

Charlotte Stephenson

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